Keeping the Kibbutz From 'Turning Into a Nursing Home'

This year, like every year, a kite show marked the end of Rosh Hashanah at Kibbutz Einat. But this time, as kibbutz member Leah Bar put it, "there were many more kites in the sky and it was nicer on the lawn." It was the addition, two weeks ago, of 80 new members to the kibbutz, located near Petah Tikva, that accounted for the lift in the mood. With their children, the new members increased membership from 250 to 380.

Bar says veteran kibbutz members, "afraid that we would turn into a nursing home," began encouraging the absorption of new members. That had not happened for 20 years, when the automatic extension of membership for the children of kibbutz members was withdrawn. At that time, the second generation was no longer interested in membership.

"This is a seminal event for the kibbutz," Rafi Eshet of the kibbutz directorate said, noting that the new additions had brought the average age of the kibbutz membership down.

"I did not feel part of the kibbutz," Rafi's son, Ron, explained. "Living in a traditional, perhaps even communist, kibbutz, wasn't an option for me. The pressure, the need to be accountable for everything, the dependence on other people's decisions - it didn't suit me. There was also a poor economic and social atmosphere, and there were years when entire graduating classes of children left," Ron said.

A few years ago, the membership of Einat, like that of many other kibbutzim, decided to privatize, to end the practice of equal salaries for all members. "The kibbutz has maintained its mechanism of mutual responsibility," Rafi Eshet said. "The salary belongs to the person who earns it, in contrast to the past when the labor was for the benefit of the community, but the community still takes care of its members and we pay taxes into a 'safety net'." According to Eshet, the changes made it possible for the kibbutz to absorb the children of members who had left. "They were sitting on the fence and waiting for the day to come," Eshet said, adding, "Paradise doesn't exist on earth, otherwise the traditional kibbutz would have survived. We had to make different compromises." The returning children of members will buy or build homes out of their own pockets.

Leah Bar's two sons and her daughter have already decided to return to Einat, and have been accepted as members. Hovav, 37, teaches physical education on the kibbutz. He "realized the capitalist dream" before making his decision, and plans to began building a house on Einat soon. "The ties to our home never stopped," he said. "I love Einat and am attached to the people, and I know every plant and tree here. This is where I grew up, and it's the best place to raise a family."

According to Ron Eshet, "The feeling of community here was a major factor in our decision to return. If you had told me 10 years ago that I would return to Einat, I would have said unequivocally that that would not happen. After the army, we even felt we were not wanted here, but I have made my peace without. Now the atmosphere is wonderful."

Supporters of the "communal stream," who champion the traditional kibbutz framework, see the new-model kibbutzim as a community-based lifestyle rather than a collective based on true cooperation. The editor of the satirical section of the kibbutz movement's Web site, Ezra Dalomi, even wrote: "Every evening we have 500 new members - they come to the banquet hall located on the kibbutz." Dalomi also warns against the constant pressure from high wage-earners on the privatized kibbutzim to lower their tax burden. Dalomi also cites efforts by the residents of communal neighborhoods located on kibbutzim to lower the fees they pay to the kibbutzim.

Both the Bars and the Eshets reject the criticism. As they see it, the return of the children of kibbutz members is the realization of a dream, a dream that, as Leah Bar put it, she had not yet even begun to dream. "The process of accepting members has created a festive atmosphere. I am crossing my fingers so it stays that way," Bar said.